Round in circles

Sometimes it feels like we are bound in endless circles, doomed Sisyphean to repeat the same old circuit. Thus I come to you with advice I’ve given before and will doubtless be given again: be nice.

At the end of last week I was struggling to see a real future for me as a writer, should this last submission come to naught. Today I am feeling more positive, and that’s in no small part due to the kindness of a relative stranger. A person I’d talked to all of once before, a published, agented author, got in touch out of the blue to say that he was going to speak to his agent on Monday and would I like him to put in a good word for me?

One unexpected submission later and ‘why yes, that would be dashed sporting of you, sir’ and I now have two irons in the fire.

I know, I know, a good word means nothing if the agent doesn’t like my work. It’s hardly a guaranteed passport to Publishersville, or even Agentshire. But it’s enough to perk me up, to make me feel like there is hope after all. I have, after all, always relied on the kindness of strangers. I believe in people. Most people are, in fact, lovely. Maybe it’s just that I’ve been fortunate enough to meet good people throughout my life.

It is just another day in the life of an author. Some days good, some days bad. It’s worth emphasising this, both to you, if you’re a fledgling writer, and to myself. Success is not a line graph, going forever upwards. It’s peaks and troughs, setbacks and step-ups. Success is the climate, not the weather.

At the moment I am in a not-success trough. I have no agent or publisher, no great well of victories to draw upon. The difficult bit is to see this time as a basic – perhaps the basic – state in that writer’s life. It doesn’t mark me down as a failure, just as signing my debut book deal didn’t make me a success. Only a long-term view will give an accurate picture, even assuming I can ever define what ‘success’ would actually look like.

So, in the meantime, whilst I polish my writing CV and swear over elevator pitches, I will keep an eye and a brain out for opportunities. And I will concentrate on being the nicest person I can possibly be, because that’s clearly the way I want to define my life. If I get breaks, if I have to rely on being an ‘industry insider’ or anything cishetwhitemaleish, then I want it to be because I’m a nice person and people want to work with me because they feel they can trust me rather than a reflection of going to the right clubs or of having the right school tie.

And that means I have an obligation to pay any niceness onwards. Find me on Twitter and ask me questions, if you have any. I’ll never make any promises because so often life intervenes, but I promise to try and help.

So many people have been nice to me. I’ve got where I am today (however you want to take that) by word of mouth, by people taking a punt on me, by trying to be vaguely reliable.

It’s the least I can do to try and pass some of my good fortune on.

The slough of despond

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‘Slough of Despond’, Edward Callam c.1972

I am already anticipating failure. We writers are a sensitive lot, and silence to us is like a sharp slap across the buttocks with the iron ruler of destiny.

You’re probably sick of Pitch Wars already. Either you’ve entered – in which case you’ll be desperately hoping to get that magic ‘send me more’ email – or you haven’t, in which case you’ll be wondering why the hell you should listen to me ramble on about it. Again.

Well it’s like this: at some point in life you’re going to submit something you care about. It could be a manuscript to a competition or to an agent. It could be a job- or university application or assignment. You’ve worked hard; you’ve made the deadline; you’ll have sent it off with a sigh of relief and a ‘well, that’s my brain cleared of that for a while’.

Obviously, the first thing you should do is unkink with the beverage or unhealthy snack of your choice. Then…

Well, take a look at this post, written in response to last year’s Pitch Wars. Now I have a thing about odds. So the sentence ‘there’s a 90% chance you’re about to have your author heart broken’ stands out to me. Of course it’s strictly true: and this year, with more entrants, there’s an even slimmer 4.7% chance of ‘succeeding’.

The odds of being chosen as a mentee, as a candidate, as an employee, are small if you look at You vs. Number of Applicants. And certainly luck is necessary; it has to land on the right desk, at the right time, whilst the recipient is in the right mood.

But you can help yourself by making your work better. In that linked post you’ll see that the co-mentors had a system of assessing writing. A certain degree of technical proficiency is needed to get you past the first round of cuts.

So my message to you is this: if you fail in any venture the first thing you should do – after the aforementioned beverage/snack – is to make yourself better. Write something else. Write something better. You can’t lose from practice, from pushing yourself, from learning something new.

The other thing to remember is that losing isn’t losing. I’ve found new people to connect with, even if it’s a vague ‘following on Twitter’ thing. My work has been seen by more people, and maybe something will have come of that in the future. I’ve given my manuscript a good polish and that will definitely stand me in good stead. I’ve practiced pitching and have learned a great deal about the business I want to be in.

Now I’m going straight back to Oneiromancer. In rewriting up my opening chapter I created a new rod for my back in the next section. I must be ready: should an opportunity fall in my lap I must be ready to catch it; that means the rest of the novel has to be as good as the opening.

There is no rest for the wicked, and I must drag myself free of the slough of despond.

The great mistake

MIstake
Okay. I made a mistake. I made the same mistake I made a dozen times before. To do the same thing and expect a different response is madness. Make of that what you will.

This is what I’m thinking: I sent Oneiromancer out too soon. I should have polished it further. Perhaps I was arrogant; I had too much faith in the improvements I’ve seen in myself as a writer (which I still believe are there – I’m a better writer now than I was two years ago). I overrode my own doubts, and this is always, always a mistake.

I’ve had some twenty rejections so far, with a few submissions still outstanding. No-one (agents only so far) has requested a full manuscript. Now is the choice: I can keep going, reaching deeper into the list of fantasy-accepting agents I find across the internetverse. Or I can pull back and reconsider my options.

The reason I’d push on is simple: it’s easy. I have a query letter that I still think is good and is relatively easily tailored to an individual agent’s tastes. I have my sample material and synopsis ready. Each rejection can be simply met with two more submissions sent out. Like Hydra, soon my sinuous necks will envelop the planet.

But easy is not necessarily best. Maybe it’s time for me to pause. To look again at the opening of my novel and see if it can’t be improved.

I still believe in Oneiromancer. It’s a good story, strong and dark and rich. I’m not fooling myself into thinking it’s perfect, though. They say you should never send out anything that isn’t perfect, but I’d reached a point where I couldn’t improve it any more. I’d reached the end of my mental strength and needed professional input to smooth out those last few creases.

It is, perhaps, arrogance that persuaded me that an agent would be the place to get that assistance. But, in my defense, this is what had happened with Night Shift. And my work has been beta-read and improvements made. What’s the alternative? The only one, so far as I can see, is to pay hundreds of pounds to a literary consultancy and that, for obvious reasons, doesn’t appeal.

So here is my plan: I will pause on the submissions. I will start on an entirely new writing project. I will, when I get a little mental clarity, try and re-examine the first three chapters of Oneiromancer to make sure my lure is as irresistible as possible to agents.

I have as a deadline and incentive this year’s Pitch Wars competition. More on that in future posts. For now, however, I must go and do some real writing.